Instincts, Ethics, and the “Yuck Factor”: A Tentative Consideration

In light of earlier comments concerning Thabiti Anyabwile’s article, I thought it might be productive to say a few things about the role of instinctual judgments in the moral life, particularly in issues of sexual sin. There has been a lot said on the matter of his role as a pastor, etc., and I think there is nothing I need add on the matter. There are, however, a few provisos which can clarify the role of instinct in the general discussion.

When we confront a sin, we are morally bound to be disgusted by it rationally speaking, that is, according to what we know discursively. If I am put into a situation where it seems as though murder will be a nice way out for all concerned (except, perhaps, for the victim), I ought to know, by my rationality, that murdering someone is an offense against the God who became man that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. And we are morally bound to seek this disgust of the reason; this is called the duty of forming our conscience.

Our conscience speaks to us through the complementary realms of reason and emotion. Aquinas postulated that human beings have, along with imagination and memory, two more inner senses, one of which, in human beings having reason, he calls the cogitative sense, which in animals represents itself as the estimative sense. In animals, this is that faculty of the animal brain by which instinct impinges upon their sensation. A sheep hears a wolf howl and instinctively responds with fear, because instinct equates the predatory howl with “fear” in the sheep’s brain.

But in human beings having reason, this represents itself by the way that things that we know affect things that we feel. An experienced structural engineer walks into an aging building and tenses up involuntarily at the sign of a great structural hazard waiting to happen. A person misbehaving with a sexual partner other than their spouse feels an involuntary twinge of guilt because, deep down, they know it is wrong. This is what is known as the effect of the cogitative sense. Aristotle, too, talks about it in the Ethics when he notes that there is an irrational part of the soul, the eidos or form of the human person, which can be brought under the rule of the rational part.

All this suffices for the theory behind the notion of formation of conscience, but there is a slight practical problem when one puts it into practice. Biology is not (to the modern understanding of science, anyway) fully mechanistic, like a clockwork universe, and certainly not to the degree that we can predict human action unerringly. However, it certainly has semi-mechanical elements that prevent extreme “mind over matter” speculation.

A person whose cognitive function and chemical biology conspire to produce same-sex inclinations is not likely to be able to “form” their way out of them, any more than someone can philosophize themselves out of inordinate heterosexual inclinations. (I should know; I’ve tried the latter! People tell me that being gay doesn’t make it any easier. Philosophy does not so much remove our concupiscence as give us the consolation to deal with it.) The cogitative sense can affect the way we sensibly react to things, but it can be resisted by the biological and psychological effects of original sin. Such is the effect of the Fall.

Impure actions will probably always have that certain je ne sais quoi, arising from the biological and psychological confusion of the fall, and as a result, appealing to the “yuck factor” will exclude the experience of anyone who is inclined to particular impure actions. Since the point of Spiritual Friendship is to bring in those voices who experience attraction to their own sex (though happily the tent is big enough to include a heterosexual writer like me), an appeal to disgust over homosexual acts will not play well in this audience, and with good reason.

But that ought not to close the book on instinct. While many found the comments distasteful, we ought to be able to step outside our situation as sexual beings, just for a second, and consider that everyone finds the yuck factor distasteful when it is being used on them. Those who advocate for pornography do not find pornography disgusting, but it is rationally true that the act of viewing pornography is reductive of the human person’s ability to communicate meaningfully through their sexuality, and that is profoundly disgusting, a great indignity done to one made to the image and likeness of God. Those who advocate masturbation as stress relief think masturbation is not disgusting, but rationally masturbation is perhaps the most pathetic sexual act, denying even the existence of the Other in an act that is fundamentally communicative and trapping the one doing it in their own psyche, like Narcissus and his reflection. Some instincts are good and ought to be admissible as instincts, with the recognition that instincts do not justify themselves.

It should be at least partially evident that what makes instincts legitimate for admission into an argument is the presumption of their rational basis in a formed conscience. If a friend of mine says that something I am doing is not disgusting, the first thing I am going to ask myself is whether this person is trustworthy in their opinion. We all know that jerk who is just out to cruise for “casual encounters” and has no further purpose to his life; would we trust his opinion about the treatment of other people? Only with the greatest reserve! But if we know someone who is evidently a stand-up person, and has proven that to our satisfaction, that they rule themselves by their reason, we weigh their instincts in our own estimation, especially if they speak from experience.

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, the key is virtue. If a person has virtue, they desire the good thing and fear the bad, “all the way down.”

Virtue, which is the habit of acting rightly out of desire for the good, is connected with wisdom, the specific intellectual virtue which recognizes good and evil at their roots. But even if I feel disgust at someone’s action, and that action is objectively sinful, it does not follow that my feelings of disgust are motivated by wisdom. Disgust with others’ sins is, for example, a characteristic of pride, which is the worst of the deadly sins.

The most reliable test of wisdom is not my reaction to other people’s sinful actions, especially when those actions do not appeal to my concupiscence. My growth in wisdom is best revealed in the growth of rational disgust at those temptations which I can rationally comprehend, whether in myself or in others.

When the habit of recognizing the good is combined with the habit of reliably choosing the good (or when recognizing evil is reliably combined with choosing to avoid evil), the one choosing is virtuous. Specifically, they are wise.

This true virtue (as opposed to prideful self-righteousness) is genuinely attractive. When the Doctor tells the newly freed citizens of an alien planet not to kill each other because “I wouldn’t!”, he is saying “I am the virtuous man, you all recognize that, so imitate me and stop murdering.” And in Christ Jesus we have all been given the example of a man Who is—be still our beating hearts—even more virtuous than our favorite 900-year-old TIme Lord. Thus, we ought to seek the opinion of the virtuous.

There is one little problem for this particular discussion, though. Virtue requires a knowledge of the circumstances of the action we are advocating, and most heterosexual commentators lack an appropriate experiential knowledge of the circumstances of homosexuals. Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike often lack the mental clarity to consider the situation fully objectively; this is further complicated by the political context which so fervently drives us along. If the yuck factor could be allowed, it could only be allowed when situated within the context of the testimony of people actually dealing with the situation. That means that whatever might be said about the rational offensiveness of homosexual action must be recognized as something which, finally, the people who find it yucky are not going to be dealing with themselves, except peripherally. And I sincerely doubt that many heterosexual commentators on the issue would be able to deal with it so clinically.

Can we, finally, bring in the yuck factor? I honestly do not know if it would be prudent for anyone to do it. This blog is where, thanks be to God, we can actually discuss such questions as they are. For myself, it remains an unanswered question, and something for the comment box!

Tom SundaramTom Sundaram is a Master’s student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, with a background in the study of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.

2 thoughts on “Instincts, Ethics, and the “Yuck Factor”: A Tentative Consideration

  1. Throughout this discussion, I tried to reconcile the honor/shame dynamic we see in the writings of St. Paul with the modern, psychological notion of shame. I came to the conclusion that there are (or should be) people in our lives who have the spiritual authority (given by God or by ourselves) to speak shaming words to us in order to motivate us toward virtue. When these men and women, proven to be virtuous, confront an entirely new situation/sin they have never experienced, I think their initial, emotional “yuck-factor” can be trusted, even when they themselves have never underwent that specific temptation.

  2. I agree. I mean, it’s one thing to have one’s parents react badly to the big news, but it’s another to deny that the people who have lived with you all your life and know you better than you know yourself have any good basis for voicing their disgust at something you do, right? We rely on this kind of moral authority too, because not everyone can give twenty reasons why something is wrong — we have to trust our gut feeling as human beings more often than anything else. Often, it’s the only indication anything’s wrong. And if our friends are a fresh pair of eyes, their gut feeling can be more accurate than ours.

    I worry that if we get rid of the yuck factor entirely, we render ourselves powerless to deal with cases that step outside the common experience; but if we make it the main premise of everything, its potentially unmoderated nature makes that extremely dangerous.

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